According to the Food and Agriculture Organization about 925 million people are currently suffer from chronic hunger. Every 2 seconds a child dies from starvation – 40,000 daily. World hunger is an ongoing problem, and it is only worsening.

One reason some people become vegetarian is to help alleviate this problem – people who are vegetarian for political and social reasons. But, does becoming vegetarian really alleviate world hunger? Exploring some of the pros and cons of this issue illuminates some of the far reaching and commonly ill-interpreted facts on one of the most important issues facing our world today.

Calorie Efficiency

A single acre of arable land can produce 20,000 pounds of potatoes, in contrast to 165 pounds of meat. The US uses 56% of its agricultural land to produce meat. This is because animals must ingest food in order to produce their meat. In the process of converting plant food into animal protein, a lot of the energy is lost to produce heat for their flesh to develop – about 90% of the calories ingested by animals is used for this. 10% of those original calories ingested will become the meat you might eat off your plate.

That’s not to say that animals don’t have their proper place in food production, though. Hogs and chickens are great for consuming left-over plant foods that humans don’t eat. They consume the energy from these leftovers and store it in their bodies, which can be consumed by humans later, when they more fully develop. The manure they produce can also be reapplied to the land, helping to return vital nutrients to the soil in an efficient and natural manner. Manure is, in fact, the original fertilizer.

The sad reality, though, is that 99.9% of the meat found in stores is not produced in this fashion. Most animals are fed corn-based animal feed that could go to feed humans more efficiently. 80% of the corn produced in the US goes directly to feed livestock. The variety of corn that is currently grown cannot be consumed by humans until it is processed, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t just grow grains that are suitable for human consumption on that very same soil.

Minimizing the steps that are taken between the Sun and human consumption is the most efficient way to get the calories we need to subsist.

Current Food Production

We currently produce more than enough calories to end world hunger – roughly 2700 calories per human, per day. This includes all types of food, including meat. So, the food is there. The question then becomes an issue of distribution.

Michael Pollan puts this most succinctly when he writes,

“Grain is the closest thing in nature to an industrial commodity: storable, portable, fungible, ever the same today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow. Since it can be accumulated and traded, grain is a form of wealth. It is a weapon, too… The nation with the biggest surpluses of grain have always exerted power over the ones in short supply. Throughout history governments have encouraged farmers to grow more than enough grain, to protect against famine, to free up labor for other purposes, to improve the trade balance, and generally to augment their own power… The real beneficiary of this crop is not America’s eaters but its military-industrial complex. In an industrial economy, the growing of grain supports the larger economy: the chemical and biotech industries, the oil industry, Detroit, pharmaceuticals (without which they couldn’t keep animals healthy in CAFOs), agribusiness, and the balance of trade. Growing corn helps drive the very industrial complex that drives it. No wonder the government subsidizes if so lavishly.”

It’s not so much that there is not enough food to go around, it’s that we choose to not to. In doing so, we in the West hold on to power, through the weapon of food.

By being vegetarian, though, and abstaining from meat, you are not participating in that economy, and thus, not supporting it fiscally (outside of the taxes you pay for subsidies). By not doing so, you are decreasing the demand for meat, and as an extension, increasing the demand for grains and other plant-based foods. Since meat production is so inefficient, though, you are actually increasing the supply of grains, driving down the price. If this were to be done on a huge scale – there are already 7 million vegetarians in the US alone – the global price of grain would drop, and foreign markets would open up. People in India, for instance, might be able to buy grain from the global food supply, rather than relying soley upon their own food production, where there is no safety net when drought might strike.

But then, let’s consider local economies. With private, centralized corporations controlling the food supply, dumping ever cheaper grain on poorer economies around the world, they’re actually killing their livelihood. That village that used to be able to grow wheat for themselves, and maybe even export some to other villages or countries – can no longer sell it. In fact, they buy it from developed countries at a fraction of the cost to produce it themselves, eliminating their niche in the market. So then what? They have to find another industry to break into, and without the capital or technology to do so, they’re left dependent on cheap food, without jobs, and dwindling capital.

The question of solving world hunger through vegetarianism quickly becomes a question of capitalism and economics once you start to prod it a bit.

So, Does Being A Vegetarian Help Solve World Hunger?

When you pull back and look at world hunger – which is the real issue here – the picture begins to blur. Global economies, local economies, subsidies, tariffs, governmental regulations, humanitarian aid, and all the rest all have a profound effect on who gets to eat, and for how much.

On the other hand, becoming vegetarian is a logical first step to solving world hunger. By abstaining from meat, you consume calories more efficiently. On a small scale, this makes perfect sense. You have one acre of land to work with, and 30 mouths to feed. Do you grow plants or graze animals? Clearly, you grow plants – and lots of them – in the most efficient way possible to ensure that you feed those 30 people. So, on a fundamental level, it makes perfect sense to follow the vegetarian diet – or at least severely limit the amount of meat you consume.

So why not start there? Don’t stop at mere vegetarianism. Build your garden, and start growing your own food. It seems ironic to stop world hunger by beginning to feed yourself – truly and wholly – but that’s the reality.